Friday, September 24, 2021

Kier-la Janisse interview: Woodlands Dark and Days Bewitched, folk horror, and All the Haunts Be Ours

I am not sure when I first encountered Kier-la Janisse, but I know where it was: between movies at Cinemuerte, a horror film festival that she curated several years in a row at the Cinematheque in Vancouver.  I was living in Japan between 1999 and 2002 for the first few festivals, and am particularly bummed to have missed the one where Udo Kier was a guest of honour - photos here! - but I loved pretty much everything I saw at Cinemuerte: Lady Terminator, Class of 1984, Vice Squad, Miike's One Missed Call...  IMy first film at Cinemuerte, I think, was Tobe Hooper's The Toolbox Murders, circa 2004, complete with a revolting sausage-eating contest (Videomatica's BJ Summers was a contestant), emceed by Edwin "do you like headcheese" Neal, from whom I bought a Texas Chainsaw Massacre promo pic which he inscribed with those very words... I still remember the gag-inducing smell of what seemed like uncooked sausage, as BJ, a Korean guy (who ultimately won), and maybe one other person power-fed themselves sausage after sausage and Neal cracked revolting jokes. It was a very entertaining night, and also the night where I first chatted with both BJ and Cinema Sewer's Robin Bougie, in a sort of "film afterparty" booth at the Templeton... Either that was the year or the next when I first approached Kier-la to congratulate her on putting on such a delightful festival, and she thanked me and grumbled something about how expensive it was to do and how attendance wasn't what she hoped...

That was something she echoed when I did a similar thing in regard to the Big Smash festival of music-themed films, circa 2006, which was very poorly attended, considering how great the films were, with documentaries on Roky Erickson, Nina Simone, and Albert Ayler, and fictional features like the ridiculous Aussie film Stunt Rock, Peter Watkins' Privilege, and Phantom of the Paradise, with Paul Williams in attendance. Wreckless Eric was on hand, as well, to introduce his pick for the festival, Godard's Sympathy for the Devil and to play a gig at the Railway Club, which I saw and much enjoyed. I was stunned that one person could be the driving force behind so many great theatrical experiences, and apparently doing it in a sort of self-started, personally-driven DIY fashion; she wasn't a paid programmer, didn't have a cinema of her own, but was putting these festivals together out of love for film, especially its less "respectable" elements, and a desire to share it with others. 

I wrote at some length about the Big Smash films, early in the history of this blog, but the key piece of writing I did regarding any of Kier-la's programming back then was a piece on Zev Asher's film Casuistry: The Art of Killing a Cat, which ran in the final issue of Terminal City newspaper - remember them? (It was also my first time being edited by Fiona Morrow, who now works with Montecristo Magazine, whom I still write for from time to time). I would later try my hand at curating a short program of films, including one of Zev's, for Noise Night! at the Vancity Theatre, which also featured a short live performance by Asher - who did a major interview with me while in town, which can be found here (RIP). Kier-la was truly an inspiration: it hadn't occurred to me that cultural events like Cinemuerte or Big Smash could come about just because one person with a passion DECIDED TO MAKE THEM HAPPEN. I tried, with some success, to make a few things happen myself, following her lead, a little. 

But there is no equivalency to be had here: Kier-la is a next level phenomenon, and her history after she left Vancouver is impressive  indeed - programming at the Alamo Drafthouse, running the Blue Sunshine microcinema in Montreal, writing a book (House of Psychotic Women: An Autobiographical Topography of Female Neurosis in Horror and Exploitation Film), founding the Miskatonic Institute of Horror Studies and the Spectacular Optical publishing imprint, and now working with one of the most exciting cult-and-horror DVD/ blu-ray labels out there, Severin Films, who are releasing a massive box set of folk horror films, including one (Clearcut) that I have great love for (more to come on that; I had some involvement in a couple of extras, but it remains to be seen which will make the final disc, and which will be held back for a possible future stand-alone).. 

Kier-la has also made her first feature film, Woodlands Dark and Days Bewitched, which is coming out as part of that set (and as a stand-alone disc), and playing the VIFF this October (Rio screening October 8th). She answered several email-interview questions about both the box set and the documentary. I've seen it, and it's great - see my previous post on this very blog for more in the way of review - and it will leave you with a long list of movies that you simply must watch, some of the most exciting of which are in fact on said box set. Woodlands Dark and Days Bewitched is like your own private seminar in folk horror, looping in experts from around the world to talk about vastly different films, united by a common theme...

Allan: I have not seen a documentary on any genre of film to do a depth analysis quite like this - but I don’t watch that many documentaries about film. Are there inspirational films for you, favourite documentaries about film that you took a lead from?

Kier-la: The only documentaries I referred my editors to were Johan Grimonprez’ Double Take and another called Bunker 77, the latter mostly for aesthetic reasons in terms of the super 8 and sun flares etc. But Double Take was a big influence in how I wanted the film to ‘feel’. Obviously Los Angeles Plays Itself is a touchstone in that it’s a very comprehensive movie doc, but I think other than that my film is very different. The main thing I got from other film docs was the resolution to not fill it with famous people who have nothing meaningful to say. I didn’t care if the interviewees were scholars that people hadn’t heard of, it was more important to me to have researchers allowed to share their own research in their own words, to get direct credit for their ideas. I also didn’t want it to just feel like a list of films. So I avoided the structure a lot of film docs take which is purely chronological.

Did the short "documentaries" you prepared, I think to run between films while you were with the Alamo Drafthouse, provide a meaningful way of cutting your teeth as a filmmaker...? I think
I Was a Teenage Quincy Punk was yours, and I remember seeing something you put together on Krautrock that played between films at the Big Smash festival in Vancouver. It kind of surprised me to see Woodlands Dark and Days Bewitched described as your first film - but if I remember my impression at the time, you didn't seem to have that much invested in those short films...

I think of those more as things I edited. I didn’t shoot or create new footage for those, they were all compiled from existing footage and kind of slapped together. The Bubblegum one [Bubblegum Music is the Naked Truth, based on a book by Kim Cooper and David Smay, 2005] was definitely the most accomplished, but still they were sort of me making-do with whatever I had in my collection. I see this film as completely different because even though I’m using a lot of film clips, I had to create it from scratch, collaborate with others, there is a much stronger vision behind it. That said, those bibliodocs (as my friend Hope Peterson calls them) were certainly a training ground for how to structure footage to tell a story.

It seems that with a lot of genres of film, especially horror film, there is a single determining factor for whether the film belongs. A werewolf movie pretty much has to have some kind of werewolf, for example. But folk horror isn’t like that – there’s more than one factor that has to be in place. Do you have a final list of factors/ criteria? Do you agree with Adam Scovell that it’s not a “genre” but a “mode?” 

 I don’t know that horror is as easy to determine or define as you say. Horror fans argue about it endlessly, whether this film or that film is ‘horror’. So the slippery definition of folk horror is much the same, I just allowed people to interpret it how they saw it, and tried to support their arguments for why something did or didn’t fit. There was a longer intro that had people giving stricter definitions of what folk horror is and I took it out. It appears as an extra on the blu-ray. Ultimately it felt presumptuous and even a bit condescending. And as several interviewees mention, a lot of these films were made without any attempt to fit into a genre with each other and are very different - even the films in the Unholy Trinity [Witchfinder General, The Blood on Satan's Claw, and The Wicker Man] are all quite different from each other. Ultimately people decide what it means to them.

Have both the documentary and the folk horror box set been tied together from the outset, and completely your baby and synched up to enter the world the same year in a really impressive feat with few parallels that I can think of… or did one project get underway first, and influence the other?

The documentary definitely came first, and as it was nearing its end, like in summer 2020, David Gregory started looking into rights on all the films mentioned that didn’t have US distribution with the idea of releasing some to tie in to the doc. Over time this became a box set, inspired no doubt by the success of our Andy Milligan and Al Adamson box sets, but even then we were thinking five films. That eventually became 20 films, a book, a couple CDs, and a ton of custom merch. But I have overseen it all, I chose the designer and art-directed it, I curated the films from a wish list, edited the book, worked with the composer of the spoken word album that comes in the set to get the music how I wanted it, chosen all the merch we would make, etc. of course there is a whole team of people at Severin facilitating all of this but they let me take the lead on it creatively. 

The section on Paganism seems notably shorter than other sections of the film. Why? Do you have any personal history with neoPaganism or neoPagans, or the occult in general?

Originally all the sections were meant to be that length, it’s just that the others got longer! And there are already so many documentaries about paganism/ witchcraft/ occultism that really that topic is better served elsewhere. So it was an important bridge between other ideas in the doc, but to make something really comprehensive would have required much more research and screen time. One thing we lost from that section though that I didn’t realize til the film was done, was we originally had a little section on Alex and Maxine Sanders, that somehow got cut and I didn’t notice, and so I do wish there was at least a picture of them onscreen. So, an oversight there. I don’t have much of a personal connection with paganism other than buying a lot of witch books as a teenager and trying to make charms and do spells etc. and there are some superstitions I hang onto from that time. I do read oracle cards most mornings. But I tend to use them more as behavioural guides than as anything with divine or psychic properties.

The mossy woods stuff at the start of Woodlands – it looks like it could be Super 8 stuff shot in BC; is it? Is it found footage, or was it shot for the film? It reminds me of the forest stuff in Dog Star Man… were portions of the film made in BC?

Some of this was filmed in BC, on Pender Island, by a local photographer named Rachel Lenkowski, one of my oldest friends. We had some super 8 shot in the UK by Neil Edwards, but he got the forest on a rather pleasant day and it wasn’t quite ‘dark’ enough, haha. So Rachel and I went out one days and she shot more B roll, on video, and then our animator Ashley Thorpe added some fox to it to try to make it match the grain and stutter of the super 8 we already had, so that it was less obvious when we cut between them.

[Pop up animation by Ashley Thorpe]

You do something kind of slippery with the narration. You don’t speak at all in the first section, then introduce yourself as an interview subject in the second chapter, then later use the “interviews” with yourself (as with others), overlapped by images in the film. You end up the de-facto narrator, but it’s a pretty gradual, even relucatant, introduction. What was the idea there?

This was purely practical. I didn’t want to be in the film, and I hate that I’m in it. I saw one review that mentioned how I “slyly snuck myself into the film” to seem as important as the other people being interviewed, and that stung because it wasn’t the case at all. But often there would be transitional things I needed or there was something I wanted mentioned that no one else had brought up, and because these people are scholars and critics, not actors, they’re not going to just say lines I’ve scripted for them. Often I’d try to get someone to say something but they’d give a much more complex response than I needed for a transition and so it was easier to say it myself. The chapters were edited as they appear in the film, so by the time we got to editing the international section we were in full COVID mode and it wasn’t safe to film people, including myself, so I recorded a bunch of audio that we tried to pretend was interview footage covered with imagery. So if that feels clunky at all, I blame COVID. 

There are, inevitably, going to be people asking, “Why didn’t you include this film?” I’m going to try not to do that so much, but I’m wondering about the absence of Larry Fessenden’s Wendigo, the Netflix film Apostle [above], and the Southern Gothic cannibal movie We Are What We Are. Are they just films that fell through the cracks, or was there a reason for excluding them? Were any films excluded for particularly interesting reasons?

There are dozens of films not in it. Nothing was really left out because I didn’t want it there, as much as we just couldn’t fit everything in, or maybe they didn’t illustrate the ideas being discussed as well as other films. Because remember, I didn’t want a list. The only way we could get the film to a reasonable length was to stick to the big ideas and use clips to support them. The Apostle is in there briefly, however. There were a couple films like The Blair Witch Project and The Hallow that I kept making notes to myself not to forget them... and then I forgot them.

 I was confused by the inclusion of Hour of the Wolf. It’s certainly closer to horror than most of Bergman's films, but The Virgin Spring seems to tick more boxes for folk horror… was The Virgin Spring just too obvious, because of the connection to Craven, or were there other factors in not mentioning it?

Hour of the Wolf was there because Kat Ellinger and a couple other people mentioned it in interviews. In some cases we cut out the bits of them talking about the films and just had the visuals onscreen, in order to tighten up the film. This happened with Clearcut (which Jesse Wente mentioned), Lake of the Dead (which Jonathan Rigby mentioned) , but again we didn’t want the film to be a list of movies so if all they said was “this film would count as folk horror” then we tended to cut them saying that and just show the film. Hour of the Wolf fit better in the context of what Kat was saying (about magic landscapes etc) than The Virgin Spring did. The Virgin Spring is an adaptation of a folk tale but its presentation is less focused on the strange and uncanny. There’s also a much different discussion of that film’s relationship to the original folk tale than the film allowed for here, as the tale’s moral and sympathies originally lay with the male sons who are denied their birthright. The celebration of the daughter is, if I remember correctly, a 19th century addition to the tale.  

Were there any films you really wanted to include in the box set that were really, really challenging to get the rights to, or track down prints of? Were there any that had to be left out? Any “ones that got away?”

All the Brazilian films. Currently locked away in the abandoned Cinemateca Brasiliera, possibly succumbing to flood or fire due to the current government’s neglect of their cultural history. It’s a really infuriating situation there. I really wanted Noites de Iemanja and As Filhas de Fogo but no dice. Also [Filipino filmmaker] Mike de Leon’s Itim aka Rites of May. We came close on that, and de Leon was about to restore it and then decided he didn’t want to with no explanation, but I still hope he changes his mind so that film can get a re-release somehow.

Movies about “devil worshippers” like The Devil’s Rain or Race with the Devil are presumably not included because they’re not folk horror – but what makes them not folk horror? Are there other films that you left out of the discussion, because they weren’t “folk horror” enough?

As Robert Eggers says in the Lovecraft section, he was wary of complex occult systems, especially those espoused by educated wealthy people, being discussed as folk horror because they are removed from the ‘folk’. There are a few films that always get discussed in terms of folk horror that fit into this realm, like Eye of the Devil, but overall I adopted this cautiousness and so I didn’t include devil worshipping films unless an interviewee brought them up. That said, in many of these 70s films the Satanism is not especially complex haha and it is definitely a vernacular manifestation of those beliefs, so again it comes down to space.

This question is in honour of Robin Bougie: Is Zebedy Colt’s pornographic film The Devil Inside Her [viewable online, but emphatically NSFW!] a kind of folk horror? [It’s about a rural Puritan farmer whose family is possessed by the Devil, who tricks them one-by-one into incest with each other. There’s also a jealous-sister subplot involving a witch’s curse, and a spectacular, demented witches' sabbath orgy at the end, including Annie Sprinkle, who says she found the film a bit scary to make.] It’s a very DIRTY, sinful, deliberately transgressive movie; the filmmaker was gay/ bisexual and very interested in attacking “straight” sexual mores… It’s maybe the only porno that I grant full respect as genuinely interesting cinema. Are there other pornographic folk horror films? Are there folk horror films that are “sexier” than others?

I haven’t seen The Devil Inside Her so I can’t comment, although yes, it sounds like it would fit. One gay porn film that was recommended to me by a Evan Purchell (of Ask Any Buddy) right as I was finishing the doc, so it didn’t make it in, was Falconhead. Which is a bit folk horror and a bit California gothic. I think sexy is a bit subjective so yes, I’m sure, but each viewer would determine that themselves.

Re: cults in America – has anyone yet made a horror film about snake handling? There’s a great one to be made.
They Shall Take Up Serpents could be the title. I love that you used the photo from the cover of Denis Covington’s Salvation on Sand Mountain [below] in your montage on “weird Christians.” But I don’t think I’ve ever seen snake handling represented in a non-documentary film… 

There are narrative films set in the world of snake handling, I watched one I was considering for the doc but ultimately it wasn’t horror, it was a pretty straight indie drama. There are a few pics from that Sand Mountain book in the doc.

Re: First Nations folk horror - I loved Jesse Wente’s observation that “it’s all an Indian burial ground.” High point in the film, for me – the slap-you-upside the head revelation that going to change how I view that trope in horror films, and chillingly relevant to recent events. Did he bring that to the film, or were you searching for “Indian burial ground” horror films before he says that?

I specifically approached Jesse because I wanted someone to talk about the Indian Burial Ground trope. But what he says is my favourite part of the film too, and many people have expressed that to me. And how eerie given the timing of the film’s release with all the new discoveries of Indigenous remains at former residential schools. Not that these things are new, these are things we know, but it gives his words extra weight when it is in the press again simultaneously. I mean that is true horror right there.

I love that there is a clip of
Clearcut in the film and that you have included that film in the All the Haunts Be Ours box set – as you know, I’ve been keenly advocating for its re-entry in the world. What’s your history with that film? What was the process of getting it included?    

I had not heard of the film til Jesse Wente mentioned it! But once I saw it, it was a film I advocated for including, but I did not deal with the acquisitions for that, that would be my boss David Gregory, who found the materials in Poland and Ryszard Bugajski’s stepson oversaw the transfer at a lab there. 

What were the more exciting revelations for you from making the film? (That is, new perspectives on folk horror that emerged from your research or interviews…?).

Everything that wasn’t Anglo-centric, haha. I went in with a very British perspective, and even the American folk horror examples I was originally considering were all New England based and thus very connected to the early British migration. But the US is so big that that section became very much about migratory patterns and contact between different cultures that lead to regional specificity, and then I was led to Australia and Brazil and Mexico because of colonial exploits there, and then it became obvious that there were two main types of folk horror - folk horror where the horror is the thing in the woods, the thing you use folk customs to guard against, and folk horror where the folk themselves, and their ‘backwards’ beliefs are the ‘horror’. I don’t know if this would hold up to exacting scrutiny, but my impression was that the latter was much more associated with white, western settler cultures. This was something I asked Dejan Ognjanovic to address in the film and he did so pretty beautifully and succinctly I think.

Major coup in connecting-the-dots between New England Puritans, the Jonestown Massacre, and Children of the Corn – when and where did that insight come to you? (Was it something you were cognizant of before interviewing, say, Bernice M. Murphy? (re: The Rural Gothic in American Popular Culture).

.Jonestown and Children of the Corn was something I spotted and asked people to comment on specifically, but Kevin Kolsh brought up the parallel of the poisoning of the coffee pot, and Bernice Murphy made the connection to the Puritans - that was not something I knew. Actually, with her book Rural Gothic, I found myself nodding at her ideas all the way through because she was able to expand upon and articulate vague ideas I had that I couldn’t quite put together, and between that book and another book called Albion’s Seed they were both helpful in structuring the American section.

Had you read all the books by people who you interviewed? Is there one you would recommend as the next step after this film? (Do *you* have a book on the topic underway?)

I had read books or academic essays by all the scholars/historians interviewed, yes, where applicable (some have not written books but been outspoken in championing certain films etc). Adam Scovell’s Folk Horror: Hours Dreadful and Things Strange is a good place to start, Bernice Murphy’s Rural Gothic (she hadn’t thought of many of these films as folk horror but realized a lot of overlap once I asked her), and Kinitra Brooks’ Searching for Sycorax has a great essay about the Conjure Woman in folk horror - I wanted her to be in the film and have this theme be more prominent, but COVID intervened and she was very busy so it wasn’t possible. I also wanted a section on Gullah Geechee folk horror (I really wanted to make a case for Daughters of the Dust being in there) but again COVID pretty much halted the interview process. Because there are so many great studies of folk horror already I don’t have plans to write a book, but I did edit a small book (150 pgs or so) that will come in the folk horror set, which is a mix of new essays and reprints of some older writings including poems (getting rights to reprint a Leslie Marmon Silko poem was a coup imo) and narrative fiction. Dawn Keetley who did an essay in this book also has a book of her own on folk horror coming out, I believe. Yi-Fu Tuan’s book Landscapes of Fear is good for looking at a lot of the landscape issues from a non white perspective, Michelle Reheja’s Reservation Reelism has a couple chapters relating to Indigenous folk horror - and she’s who recommended Kali Simmons for the film, who I think has become a bit of a scholarly rock star over the summer with a lot of participation in books, panels, classes, films, etc, speaking about Indigenous horror. Renee Bergland’s The National Uncanny was also an important guide for studies in the depiction of Indigenous ghosts in settler mythology etc. Howard David Ingham and Andy Paciorek who are in the film both have several books about folk horror and adjacent topics, covering everything from cults to corpse-roads!

Any collaborators on either the film or the box set who are particularly close to you, or who you have interesting behind-the-scenes connections with? How did you get Guy Maddin involved?

Howard David Ingham and Neil Edwards both helped in multiple ways so they were important collaborators. Neil shot interviews for the film but also shot all the super 8, and he paid for the film and processing as a contribution to the doc! Howard’s mom was a spiritualist medium and he grew up in that environment of what he calls “a nice cup of tea and a seance,” so I got him to write the interpretive booklet for the oracle card deck that comes with the folk horror super-bundle. My editors Winnie and Ben did so much amazing work that I think if I ever make another film without them it’ll be obvious that they are responsible for the film’s success more than I am. (Note to self: never make another film!)
Guy was involved from early on, I knew I needed some aesthetic pizazz that exceeded what I was capable of creating myself so I asked if he would consider making some animated collages for the film. We’ve only met a few times, very briefly each time, but I have managed to rope him into doing favours for me many times which I am so grateful for. He has helped me more than our tenuous acquaintance warrants. But we do have a mutual good friend in Caelum Vatnsdal, the author of the Canadian horror book They Came From Within, who has been in Guy’s films, wrote a book about him, and who I went out with briefly as a teenager after stalking him at Movie Village in Winnipeg. So I think Caelum may have been how I first got in touch with Guy. And of course my boss David Gregory, the greatest enabler of all!

See Woodlands Dark and Days Bewitched streaming online between October 1st and 11th, or at the Rio Theatre on October 8th, as part of the Vancouver International Film festival. Pre-order the Severin folk horror box set, All the Haunts Be Ours, starting December 7th, here. Thanks, Kier-la! 

No comments: